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He-Man and the Masters of the Universe Review

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by Chris McEneany Oct 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM

    “I am Adam, Prince of Eternia and defender of the secrets of Castle Grayskull.”I'll just bet that the theme tune to this gaudy spectacle from the early eighties is spinning through your head right now. As a kid, I loved this show. Lounging about on the sofa after school, with a mug of tea and a plate of hot-buttered toast (milk and cookies was for the yanks!) and without a care in the world. Emu had just gotten the better of Grotbags the witch again, leaving my eager young mind thirsting for more adventure. Of course, what I got next was some of the campest, and least violent, heroics this side of Supermarket Sweep. But, I'll tell you what - for a good couple of years (well, before the discovery of girls really, at that magical age of thirteen when you stopped going out to “play” and just went out with your mates) He-Man rocked. In fact, I confess to stalling my crew a few times even when I was thirteen, just so that I could stay back and watch the caring-sharing hulk prance about in his S&M furry-undies and metal strap-over combo. Although, obviously, I neglected to admit this at the time.

    “This is Cringer, my fearless friend.”

    He-Man, or Arnie with a daft page-boy haircut, was a role model/marketing ploy dream come true for toy giant Mattel and animation company Filmation, who both needed something new to boost profits. Filmation, who had a pretty good track record with the likes of the Star Trek cartoon show, Superman, Batman and Tarzan to their name, wanted to branch into the sword and sorcery genre spearheaded by Dino De Laurentiis's Conan The Barbarian, and Mattel, who had already created a new range of fantasy-action hero figures needed some grand advertising scheme that would hook the kids. And, hey presto, He-Man was born in a flurry of muscle-bound concept art and fledgling storyboards that Filmation managed to pitch to syndicate TV in a clincher of a deal that kept them and Mattel coining it in for years, and a lot of animators and writers steadily employed. He-Man broke the mould and, despite its innate cheesiness and strict adherence to wholesome family values, went on to become a genuine pop-culture classic with naff spin-offs and an even more naff movie -which we won't discuss any further - failing to tarnish its practically immortal status as a cult show.

    “Fabulous secret powers were revealed to me the day I held aloft my magic sword and said ... BY THE POWER OF GRAYSKULL ...”

    Mingling fantasy with sci-fi trappings, and setting the action on a colourful distant world that embraced the sword and the nobility of yore with the lasers, jet-bikes and machinery of the future was a comic and film fan boy's wet dream. We had the obvious heroes, peaceniks and humble, hardworking peasants - who never seemed to notice how downtrodden they were compared to their compassionate rulers - and then we had the baddies, colourful renegade mutants, magicians and monsters bullied into getting their butts kicked every day by the evil cackling skull-muscle, Skeletor. Go on, do the laugh ... you know you want to! Under the strict conventions of a cartoon governing body that ensured the protection of children's vulnerable minds, the writers of the show made it their crusade to inject the necessary pro-societal ethics and morals that would justify the rainbow-hued fisticuffs and devious double-dealing, and then round it all off with some slapstick, courtesy of an irksome floating robe with eyes called Orko. Oh, and they also added the scantily clad, thigh-tastic warrior-babe Teela ... just to help those hormones kick in and keep dad mildly entertained. Lashed together with big and bold, old school animation and some terrific environments painted all the colours of the wildest psychedelic trip, the show even looked like a young boy's fantasy literally thrown up all over the TV screen. We're not talking Disney here, but the style, whilst simple and dealt in broad brush-strokes, was nevertheless evocative and eye-poppingly atmospheric.

    “I HAVE THE POWER!”

    The plot couldn't have been simpler and, in fact, never altered from the basic staple of nasty, never-satisfied Skeletor and his bizarre menagerie of gimmicky goons - Goth sorceress Evil-Lyn, orange fur-ball Beast-Man, lame bath-toy gone bad Mer-Man and, my favourite of the early batch, Swiss Army cyborg Trap-Jaw - attempting to wrestle power over Eternia from the rather duff King and Queen. That every plan, every tactic, every scam was thwarted by gay-icon He-Man, the heroic alter-ego of bumbling, pink-shirted Prince Adam (it's just Clarke Kent and Superman, isn't it? But, at least, Clarke wore glasses so you could tell them apart) was a given. Yet knowing this never diluted the sheer dumb fun of an episode. Trap-Jaw was the coolest villain, with his hinged iron-toothed mouth he was like a trash compactor on legs, and his inter-changeable arsenal of arm weaponry made him the best action figure by far. Of course, all this brute strength and savagery was no match for the chivalrous brains and brawn of the unbelievably forgiving He-Man as, show after show, he would fling, throw and heave - yet never actually hurt - this motley crew around the mountains, swamps and caves of Eternia and then pack them off to their lair to hatch fresh, but equally doomed, plots.

    “Cringer became the mighty Battle-Cat, and I became He-Man, the most powerful man in the universe.”

    Accompanying the big guy on his crusade for truth and justice and the Eternian way (and the right to wear the most revealing clothes imaginable) were the luscious Teela, her helmet-headed father Man-at-Arms (that little laser-beam dance he does in the titles gets me every time) and the big green tiger/panther hybrid that becomes his armoured taxi-ride, Battle-Cat. Just why Cringer cowered and whimpered so much when he knew what he would become whenever his bowl-headed master waved his sword in the air, is still beyond me. I'd also like to know how that grinning rock edifice of Castle Grayskull managed to sneak up behind Prince Adam each time he fancied a bit of derring-do. If you're trying to keep your heroic identity a secret then I'm afraid a big castle suddenly appearing out of nowhere, a flash of blinding light and you shouting your mighty muscled mouth off about this power you've got, is going to give the game away, I'm afraid. But, despite many moments of literally belief-beggeringly obvious narrative, scenarios that you could write on the inside of ant's eyelid and dialogue that makes cringers out of all of us, He-Man remains a thunderously entertaining romp, episode after episode.

    “Only three others share the secret - our friends the Sorceress, Man-at-Arms and Orco.”

    Animation-wise, the show was pretty aggressive and its style was keen, fast and in-your-face. There was some attempt at muscle-movement on He-Man's ripped torso, though I have some doubts about the oft-used shot of him landing in a wide-legged stance and the camera prowling up his buffed-up back. It's also quite tiresome having the exact same transformation set-piece in every single episode - surely they could have had some variety there, once in a while. That said though, there is a great moment on Orco's world when the Powers of Grayskull have no effect, leaving He-Man standing there with his sword waving about, but no flashing lights and pumping theme-tune. I'll bet that's the time he most regretted putting that pink shirt on, eh? It's also quite amusing how the animators keep showing characters running towards the camera and then obviously “stepping” over it - like you see in cheesy live-action shows. They're animated, for God's sake! There's no camera actually there. But, despite the many fawning shots of the super-developed manly physiques on show, the team are obviously still red-blooded males with the way in which they have Teela ride her jet-bike contraption with her derriere thrust out, and the number of times a jeopardy has her hanging or falling. “And, together, we defend the secrets of Castle Grayskull from the evil Masters of the Universe!”

    And the moralising at the end. Well, I actually don't mind the way they've done this. I reckon it would have been far more patronising to have had Adam deliver his life-lesson sermonising in the context of the story's narrative. I feel it is somewhat less condescending to have him make his speech literally to the kids as a common-sense footnote to all the chaos of Eternia. It's like Hill Street Blues for little people - “And hey, let's be careful out there.”

    Packaged here are the first thirty-three episodes from Season One of the original series in a gorgeous gatefold pack, lavishly adorned with artwork. Differing slightly from broadcast order, the set includes some fan favourites like Teela's Quest, where she searches for her real mother, the one in which Prince Adam must battle his dual identity in Prince Adam No More and the one where we get to visit Orco's home world, and the levitating hat-stand even gets himself a matching girlfriend. Check out the moment of unmasking when the love-struck pair reveal themselves. But my favourite has to be The Taking Of Grayskull, where a mystical “white-hole” (“It's similar to a black hole, Teela, only it's white!” No, Man-at-Arms doesn't actually say that, but you really think he's going to at one point) drags He-Man and his power-base into a crazy, warped parallel dimension. The visuals here are fantastic and surreal. Great after a night-out. Seriously. Top shelf entertainment from bottom drawer material. Well recommended for nostalgia-trips ... and kids, obviously.